Fulham Football Club – Spinning plates!

Working at Fulham FC’s Motspur Park training ground is like spinning plates reckons Head Groundsman Declan Robinson. It’s an analogy he is happy with though, having learned from some of the top groundsmen in the industry. Blair Ferguson chatted with him about his career path and ambitions.

Head Groundsman at Motspur Park, Declan Robinson

Careers are often shaped by the people you work with and the standout experiences you have along the way. Positive or negative, they mould a person as they progress and determine the staff member or manager they will become in the future.

Fulham Football Club’s new Head Groundsman at Motspur Park, Declan Robinson, has spent twelve years working with some of the industry’s best including Steve Braddock. He got an early introduction to pressure cutting courts at 19-years old at Wimbledon and got his new role with a job interview panel that included former Fulham manager, Scott Parker.

Like so many, his experiences have made an impression on him, and the early indications of his time at Fulham suggest he has been shaped for the better. In groundsmanship, the happiness and workmanship of a team is usually reflected in the pitches they maintain, and taking that as a barometer, Declan has hit the ground running in his first six months.

Fulham’s somewhat unassuming training base sits within the houses and schools of Surrey, with its two main buildings retaining their 1920s exteriors. Once owned by the University of London, Fulham took over the land in 1999 and, whilst much work has been done to accommodate a modern professional football club, the arena stand, which featured in the movie Chariots of Fire, embodies the character and history of the site.

As well as the arena pitch, there are four other natural pitches and outdoor and indoor synthetic pitches. These surfaces play host to Fulham’s first team, academy, women’s team, and the Fulham Foundation, meaning they are in use most of the week.

Motspur Park aerial view

When joining in April 2021, Declan’s priority was to turn the pitches around to the condition they are in now with his hardworking team of seven, but his journey to this point has prepared him for life in charge, starting at Wimbledon.

“My first job was part of my Level 3 National Diploma at Myerscough, which was seasonal work at Wimbledon,” Declan begins. “It was part of the course that you undertook some work experience. I got selected out of the class to go to Wimbledon along with two other lads, and I was there for six months. I was never interested in tennis before that, but it was an amazing place to work.”

“My skills were limited because I had just come out of college, but I was fortunate to be handed the opportunity to cut my own courts, which is quite a prestigious thing. We had a lot of people, who had come from abroad, who had years and years of experience in greenkeeping, and they did trials to see who was good at cutting. So, I think I oversaw courts ten and seven, and they were my responsibility. I learnt how to work under pressure, I learnt how to cut straight, and just the basics of working in groundsmanship. As I say, it was more of an experience to show me what can be in the future.”

“It was quite nerve-racking, and it sounds like a small thing now, but you’re thinking you don’t want to leave any blemishes, and you want to make sure it’s straight, the last thing you want is anything to be highlighted on television. I know it’s not Centre Court, but there are still thousands of people a day watching it, and you can get any game on television, so it was one of those things that you just wanted to make sure you don’t make a mistake; to start, it was nerve-racking, but I loved it.”

After moving back to Lancaster following his six-month stint in London, Declan applied for a job with the advert stating a ‘North London Football Club’. During this interview process, he first met Steve Braddock and was introduced to one of the industry’s favourite characters, his methods, and six and a half years of learning.

The Players Building / Looking across to the indoor pitch building

“I went to Arsenal’s training ground and had an interview with Steve, which was rather interesting. Everyone knows Steve. He’s very thorough, and for someone that didn’t really know the industry, to go and sit in a room with him and understand how passionate he is and the measures that he goes to, it was an eye-opener.”

“I had an interview and then a second interview/practical. I’ll never forget that practical day because he had thought of everything. You had to clean a bit of a sand bay, and he’d hide around the corner and watch you and make sure you didn’t do a little thing like get your phone out. Just little things like that, where he went to every extreme that he could to make sure you were the right person – it was brilliant.”

“I look back, and I was 19 and not that mature, so I didn’t really understand all of the extremes, but now it’s amazing to think about. There was another point where he did a memory test, and he would give me a piece of paper, take it back, and I had to memorise the delivery that was coming at the end of the day. I look back at my time and think it is such a great insight into the roles I’ve taken to this point in my career.”

“I worked at Arsenal for a total of nine years, and I learnt everything there. Under Steve, I learnt groundsmanship from the basics to the top level because we did our own renovations, and everything we did was to the book, or to Steve’s book because he has his own bible of groundsmanship. But I learnt everything that I needed to know for me to progress, by the time I’d worked for six years and completed yearly renovations and consistent high levels of pitch maintenance, I’d got myself to a skilled groundsman position, in my own head, but there wasn’t a position available.”

After an unsuccessful search of the job market, Declan, along with his partner Lorna, took the bold decision to go travelling around the world. Declan’s passion for groundsmanship meant his time away included visiting some of the world’s iconic stadia, including the Maracanã in Brazil, Peru’s national stadium in Lima and the homes of LA Galaxy and the LA Rams.

Arena Stand used in Chariots of Fire / The Covid gym

On his return from a year away, he went back to Wimbledon for seasonal work but soon took the opportunity to join Boreham Wood F.C. as Head Groundsman, where his learning started all over again.

“I applied for a job to be the Head Groundsman at Boreham Wood, which was under the jurisdiction of Arsenal because it’s where the women and under 23 matches took place. I oversaw the Desso Grassmaster being installed and took sole charge of that. I was there for a couple of years, there was quite an intensive fixture period, and it was an education in terms of working for a non-league football club and Arsenal.”

“It gave me a broad horizon, especially in terms of the politics between football clubs and just the way that people do things differently. It was good for me because I’d worked at Wimbledon and Arsenal and, although I was still employed by Arsenal, I worked for Boreham Wood at the same time, so it gave me more of a perspective of the industry, which was good.”

“Throughout the football industry, everybody is dealing with different pressures. No two jobs are the same, and I’ve learnt that from every job I’ve had, they have all been totally different. Working at that level, I had to chip in and help with the maintenance of the site sometimes, so it gave me a little bit of an understanding that it isn’t always down to the pitch; it’s down to helping the football club as well.”

“The majority of the time, I would focus on the pitch. When I went in there, I also understood that we had to overhaul the machinery and products, but I saw what they had to work with on a day-to-day basis before we got there. So, it refreshed my mind to see how fortunate I was.”

“Another thing I learnt was I didn’t have three groundsmen at my disposal every day, it was me, and maybe another member of staff from one of the Arsenal sites, or I was on my own. That gave me yet another awakening!”

The Arena Pitch

“After being there for a few years, I wanted to make that step up to work in a bigger stadium environment and endure the challenge of events. Working with James Williams at the London Stadium ticked that box. They had just held the baseball in 2019, and they were looking to hold it again, there were a lot of exciting things happening there. I was looking forward to the athletics, and there was plenty of infrastructure improvement being made, then Covid hit. That kind of ruined all those memories that I wanted to make. I sat in meetings about transitioning the stadium, which really interested me, and that’s what grabbed my attention about the role and working there, to see how things transitioned whilst working under the different pressures.”

“Although Covid managed to halt some career progressive experiences, I left the stadium with a far better understanding of grounds management. James trusted me to assist with budgets, business planning, interview processes, health and safety and the day-to-day maintenance schedules.”

Declan’s focused career progression has taken the shape of somebody who sets themselves challenges and achieves them. Although calm and considered when he speaks, he is clearly driven to work towards his next goal methodically and, after two years at the London Stadium, he was ready to take the step into full management.

Still in the throes of lockdowns and Covid restrictions, his time at Fulham began through a series of video calls and led to his impromptu interview with then Fulham manager Scott Parker.

“Because of Covid, I had to do my interviews remotely through Teams, and I thought I was having a conversation with the COO and then a discussion with a member of the squad management, which wasn’t going to be Scott. Apparently, on the day, he wanted to take some time out to speak to the person that was going to oversee the pitches, and it was nerve-racking. I’ve never heard of it before. I hadn’t even heard of the coaches being involved in interviews, so to say I was slightly underprepared would be fair. Although this intrigued me because he wanted to know about the person leading the maintenance of the pitches.”

Training Pitches

“And, from that point, it was good for me to be able to lay my cards on the table and for him to be able to listen to me in terms of building a relationship for us to work together daily.”

“It was interesting to have that direct contact and explain about my education and the pathway to where I am, plus the way I look at pitch maintenance and what I’m interested in trying to achieve as a groundsman. I think although Scott was present, Darren, who is the COO, was also on the call, and the feedback and vision of the club that he gave me is what set myself and Fulham onto the path we’re on now.”

“We all understood each other, and I was interested in how the club was moving forward with potentially having an additional new training ground and building a new stand. For me, it’s an exciting club to be a part of, and everything seems to be going forward, so they sold it to me, and I obviously sold myself to them.”

“I’d done a little bit of management, and it was where I wanted to be. I’ve been in the industry now for twelve years, and I have developed progressively over time. This is the role I need to be in now and, so far, it is going well.”

For Declan, this role represents an opportunity to put his stamp on a facility and, more importantly, mentor and train his team in the same way he was.

While his immediate priority was to turn the pitches around, his method of doing it was by improving morale amongst the team and introducing new ideas and working practices that enhanced their work-life balance.

Declan explains: “The team had come out of a difficult period in terms of Covid. I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone who has enjoyed the Covid period, so it was about picking the team up and trying to get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. Trying to build up the morale in the group, add a bit of structure, and create a better work-life balance. By doing that, it makes everyone happier at work, and it makes everything run a bit more smoothly, but straight away, it was about picking everyone up and trying to get my education and ideas across.

“I believe I’ve been fortunate with some of the people I’ve worked under, like Steve Braddock and his assistant Andy Purser, plus when I was at Boreham Wood, I worked under Paul Ashcroft and then James Williams at the London Stadium. I’ve picked up bits of knowledge from each of them, so I think using various management skills here is what I need to do.”

“The team has worked hard and are progressing daily. We have made many improvements in a short space of time, and I believe the coaching staff are happy with the pitches at present, so we are moving in the right direction.”

“It’s a very busy site. My deputy, Stuart, always says it’s like spinning plates at this training ground, and he is right. One minute we’ve got the first team, then we’ve got the U23s, the U18s, U16s matches, the women are here, and the foundation. All that together, along with the pitch maintenance, the irrigation, drainage, machinery upkeep, waste management, landscapes and site operations. Time can be precious, so I quite like the spinning plates analogy because sometimes I go home spinning.”

“But that was a part of what drew me in. I didn’t come through the door and think this is going to be easy. I need a challenge, and I’m a driven individual. When I walk out of the house in the morning, I want to be busy and keep my mind active, so this role is something that, for the foreseeable future, is going to take time to get the whole department to where I foresee it and then I’m sure other challenges will be set.”

Club badge drawn by Turf Tank / Grow sheet

So far, by and large, Declan’s plans are falling into place and starting to move forward. Embracing technology with a Turf Tank One line marking robot and pitch testing is now on his agenda as he aims to keep all areas of the site in top condition.

“At first, when I found out about robots coming into the industry, I was hesitant, like a lot of people, thinking it won’t be long before they take our jobs. But, for us as a team, it is beneficial because it gives us a valuable education in terms of where the industry is going forward with technology. We’re starting to use it, which is good because we’re getting an education in that. It’s sustainable, because it uses less product, and frees up staff to assist with various other maintenance tasks. We have seven people for a seven-pitch site which can present some challenges, but with little adjustments like the Turf Tank we can still achieve and fulfil the correct practices and standards.”

“I’ve only been here for seven months, we finished our yearly renovations, grown in the pitches and now look forward to the challenges of the winter months.”

“We have three different pitch constructions on our site, which means our maintenance tasks can be varied for each pitch. We use pitch testing to analyse the surfaces and maintain as much consistency as possible. Daily, we promote the teams to use different pitches or certain areas to give the plant the most effective recovery periods. The pitch testing data can assist my argument with regards to moving training. It is a busy site, so it’s not always easy to keep the pitches as perfect as we’d like them, if I’m honest. The wear management is a constant battle; fortunately, the coaching staff across the site are refreshing and understand we are all a team pulling in the same direction.”

“The testing also helps us understand some of our maintenance methods. We’ve recently hired an apprentice, and it helps to educate in terms of why and what things are achieving, we analyse the results through the year which gives the lads an understanding of our yearly works schedules. If you just put a hole in the ground, you know you’ve decompacted it, but how do you measure the results if you don’t test.”

“At the moment, I use a pen and paper, but hopefully, when I get my teeth into this place a bit more, we can try and look at different software. I’d rather greet the coaching staff with something a bit more reliable than my piece of paper and dodgy handwriting!”

“That’s something we’ll look at going forward and, as I said, we’ve started well, but there are still plenty of improvements for us to make.”

Article by Blair Ferguson

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